Rebuttal: "Practice Is Overrated" Research

We've all heard of the "10,000 hour rule," which states that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a complex activity such as a sport or a musical instrument. Most people assume there's a relatively positive correlation between time spent practicing and success, meaning the more you practice, the more you improve and succeed.

However, there have been recent studies that suggest the correlation between time spent practicing and success isn't as strong as we once thought. There are plenty of examples of athletes who haven't practiced as much as others and still have success. And there are plenty of examples of athletes who have trained way more than others but don't succeed. These studies point to genetics and mental game performance skills as factors that may be more important to success than practice. They argue that people with great genetics and natural talent can still succeed without practicing as much as others. And people with poor genetics can fail despite practicing a lot. And people who don't practice as much can still succeed because of great performance skills (mental game). And people who have practiced a lot can fail because of poor performance skills (mental game).

There is some truth in these claims. However, the interpretations of these claims and their implications can be bad. People who read these studies may end up believing that practice doesn't matter at all. Or at least they undervalue practice more than they should. This can create a terrible attitude. If you undervalue practice and don't believe it is effective or helps you reach your goals, then why even practice? If you don't think you can improve through practice, you won't be motivated to strive for lofty goals. If you think all that matters is genetics, and you believe your genetics are below average, then you may give up sports, thinking you have no chance of success. If you think you can just rely on your good genetics, you'll be disappointed when you don't reach your potential.

I am not saying that practice is the only thing that matters. I've already written about the roughly equal importance of freewill, genes, and environment. But I do want to prove that practice does in fact matter. To do that, I have to debunk some of the claims of these recent studies about practice.

These studies infer that practice is overvalued because there isn't always a strong correlation between practice and success. The first thing you need to ask yourself is what do they mean by practice? Not all practice is equal. There is ineffective practice and there is effective practice. The most effective practice is deliberate practice, which focuses on quality repetitions aimed just outside of your comfort zone (current ability level). It is true that a person may train for tens of thousands of hours but still not succeed. But was this person practicing effectively or not? It is true that a person can succeed despite practicing a below average amount of hours, but maybe his practice is very effective.

The second thing you need to ask yourself is what do these studies constitute as practice. Are they just talking about the time period spent on a court/field? This is what most people think of when they hear the word "practice." However, in my opinion, this is a big mistake. I do not consider practice as just the time spent on a court/field. I consider it more broadly as everything you do, and every decision you make on and off the court. A better word for it would be "training" instead of practice. Training is 24/7. It isn't just time spent practicing on a court/field. It includes time spent in the gym and time spent in the film room. It includes practicing mental exercises such as meditation. It includes physical recovery such as stretching. It includes eating healthy and getting good sleep. It includes making good life decisions. It even includes your leisure time (which affects your mental health). Anything that influences your growth and performance is a part of training.

As you can see, it is extremely difficult to study the correlation between training and success. It is not as simple as just counting the number of hours spent practicing on court/field per day. How do you even measure training when it includes everything you do on and off the court? How do you measure the quality of the training? These are not easy questions to answer in a laboratory or through other methods of research. Each athlete and coach must use their own logic and reasoning skills to examine their training regimen, notice the results, determine if their training is effective, and make adjustments.

One of the claims of these studies is that mental performance skills may be more important than practice. But isn't it your job to improve your mental skills in practice? Isn't it your job to get your mindset right before a game to make sure you perform well? A good mental game isn't just something you have or don't have. It can be improved with practice like most skills. Some of your personality, and therefore some of your mental game, is genetically influenced, but this doesn't change the fact that your mental game can be improved with practice.

Everyone intuitively knows the importance of practice (or training). Everyone who has played or coached sports knows the importance of practice. Everyone who has gone to school knows the importance of studying, discipline, and making good decisions. Everyone intuitively knows the importance of the choices you make and how they can affect your life for better or worse. You don't need studies or statistics to know this.

If you don't believe practice matters, you're just not practicing right. If you practice (train) the right way, you will improve. If you practice deliberately, work hard, work smart, are coachable, practice all aspects of your game (technique, physical, mental, tactical), eat healthy, recover physically, make good decisions, and maintain your mental health, you will succeed. This I can guarantee. It isn't easy, but it does work.

Have a deep belief that training does make an impact. There is a specific, all-encompassing training regimen ideal for you and your sport. It is up to you to find it and commit to it. If you truly adopt the perfect training regimen, and commit to it 100%, you will be amazed at how much you can improve and succeed in life.

If you want to read one of these studies about practice and success, you can read it here.